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Moving Christian Worship Toward Social Justice

by James F. White

When this article was written, James F.White was professor of liturgy in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana. This article appeared in the Christian Century June 17, 24, l987;pp. 258-260. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Christian public worship is an important form of social control -- a way to influence people. That may sound paradoxical or even evil, but until we admit that worship involves control, we cannot easily discuss worship's relation to justice.

Social control does not necessarily apply to private worship or personal devotion, although it can, because such worship is often heavily shaped by community practice. Whether in spontaneous or structured prayer, an individual worships privately -- in isolation from others -- more or less at his or her own pace and convenience.

Public worship is different. Because it is a social act, certain constraints are necessary. Social control in worship is not intentional or deliberate; worship leaders do not have a sinister desire to manipulate people. It is simply that in order for people to celebrate and work together, certain conventions are necessary, even if they may frequently limit or restrain individual self-expression.

In this context of inevitable social control, its effectiveness and use must be examined in light of Christian concepts of social justice. Justice within the church's worshiping community ascribes full human worth to all members of the body of Christ. Or, defined in still older terms, justice accords to each member of the body that which is his or her due. Paul indicates that by baptism, all participate in the one body with "no sense of division in the body, but that all its organs might feel the same concern for one another. If one organ suffers, they all suffer together. If one flourishes, they all rejoice together" (I Cor. 12:25-26).

Worship enforces social control in several inevitable ways. First, the basis for most Christian worship is orderly repetition; Sunday morning services are highly predictable. Most churches' order of worship rarely changes: the lessons are familiar, people prefer hymns they know, and even the sermon is usually quite predictable.

Second, Christian worship is based on the rehearsal of familiar, common memories that the community cherishes. These memories are structured on weekly and yearly cycles perpetuating recurring commemorations. Part of worship's power is precisely this ability to reinforce familiar patterns of belief and activity. But herein lies a danger: when something unjust occurs, it is likewise reinforced by constant repetition. Injustices, then, are rarely single occurrences because worship's repetitive nature usually guarantees that perpetuation.

An important dimension of worship is its divine context. Worship is not an indifferently or casually performed activity such as going to a movie or concert; the worshiper attends a service in expectation of being in the presence of the Living God. Thus, what is done in church occurs in a different context from that of the rest of life -- namely, in deliberate consciousness of God's presence.

This means that consciously or, more often, unconsciously, what we experience in church gains a sanction unequaled in the other aspects of our lives. This can actually lead to social injustices. I am reminded of a wedding in a large Presbyterian church in Dallas where the minister, in the course of prayer, informed the Almighty that it was the duty of the bride to stay home and provide a comfortable environment for her husband, who in turn must provide "shelter and raiment" for his wife. This type of act (which Henry Sloane Coffin once called "bouncing it off the Almighty") involves sanctifying by context a social pattern that is, to say the least, highly questionable in terms of justice.

Social patterns from everyday life tend to be taken for granted in worship; i.e., what is normal in daily life becomes normal in worship. But what is normal in worship has a way of becoming, in the course of time, normative. Thus it is not surprising that until recently, it was simply assumed that ushers had to be middle-aged men just because they had always been. And this norm still has not been seriously challenged in many congregations.

Those marginalized by society are likely to be marginalized in worship. Until recently this situation included women, and it still includes children. Those whose full human worth is likely to be denied outside of worship are almost certain to be similarly marginalized within worship. Quite frequently, this happens despite the community's own rhetoric . It is common in most churches to baptize infants and children and then immediately to "excommunicate" them. The churches justify this practice by implying that one has to be able to think like an adult -- i.e., conceptually -- in order to commune. Even though children perceive relationships, especially inclusion and exclusion, at very early ages, this fact is disregarded. The refusal to mean what we say about baptism's inclusiveness is a reflection of a society that denies children full citizenship.

Many of the actions of worship both reflect and reinforce social values. Again, children provide an apt example. Frequently, with good intentions, we exploit children for their cuteness -- witness the children's sermon, evoking chuckles from the adults but blushes of humiliation and confusion from the children. Also, what we wear in worship is an important form of conveying values. For example, by dressing clergy in robes with padded shoulders, we make athletic appearance important to ministry.

Roles are an equally important means of stressing control. Who does the important things in worship? A very good way to distinguish a minister who presides from one who dominates is to observe how often he or she sits down; sitting, in effect, delegates leadership to others. A minister who is on his or her feet for the entire service is probably dominating the entire service. Leadership style suggests how the minister relates to the community in general.

We have seen in recent years how seriously spoken words suggest whom we value in society. But there is much more to this tendency than critiques of gender-exclusive language. Those qualities and actions of God which we choose to praise are indicative of our attitudes. It is no accident that the most heated quarrel in editing the new United Methodist Hymnal revolved around the use or rejection of "Onward, Christian Soldiers," a hymn deemed too militaristic for some. Words said and sung week after week shape the ways in which we perceive reality, showing whether -- and how -- we try to create solutions for the world's problems.

As a human activity, worship is not, then, immune as a source of injustice, but it can also be a source for justice. What it cannot be is neutral. We cannot deal with these matters in abstraction, as if worship were practiced everywhere in exactly the same ways. Rather, we can look at what happens in any particular congregation and propose ways for working toward more just forms of worship. We might do this through a four-stage process involving observation, analysis, normative judgment and reform, which moves from practice to theology and back to practice dialogically.

The first step is observation. This is not as simple as it sounds; most worshipers and worship leaders are so anesthetized by familiarity that they perceive little of what others do during worship. To be a competent observer, one has to cast aside all assumptions and attend worship as if unfamiliar with its conventions. Assuming this attitude may be difficult even for a nonchurchgoer.

One soon learns that many different dynamics are going on in worship according to age, interest level and role. The ways people arrive, leave and interact with each other are important dynamics. The process of observation examines whether the community does what it means. However, the meaning of what it does is not always clear even to itself. Observation involves learning to see and hear the way the community is expressing its faith.

Observation leads to analysis. We must look at the actions, roles and words we have observed in terms of faith and ethics; i.e., search for the hidden message. This process involves checking for self-contradictory statements, because our actions often contradict our words. For example, if we proclaim that everyone is welcome to worship with us in a church approached by 21 steps, we are ignoring the disabled and the elderly.

There are other, more subtle messages in worship. The choice of Scripture readings. hymns and prayers is important. Presbyterians found in a survey that the average minister has 65 favorite texts that are imposed on congregations year after year. No minister deliberately limits it congregation to his or her own grasp of Scripture, but most do so unintentionally. It is necessary to analyze every segment of the congregation to see if all are given full due.

Analysis gives way to formulating normative judgments. This is the stage at which we must ask. "Is it just? " Are we engaging in practices that marginalize some or elevate a few at the expense of others? If so, we need to look for just alternatives. It is one thing to flag an unjust practice; it is quite another to find a just alternative. (It is all too easy to substitute one injustice for another, such as changing all male pronouns for God to female forms.)

Bringing about change in worship patterns threatens many people. Some older people were offended by the latest effort at revision of the Book of Common Prayer, feeling that because they would not live to use the new prayer book, their opinions were likely to be discounted. Even in producing changes that lead to more just practices, there is a danger of unjust methods; ingrained patterns must be changed without discounting their adherents. This often involves careful consultation so that these people are heard and respected. One does not change his or her way of addressing God after 70 years without feeling threatened. Therefore, normative judgments have to take into account where people are, not where they should be or where we wish them to be.

Finally comes the stage of reform of actual practice. Here we use what we have observed, analyzed and judged in order to shape a more just approach. In every case, there is a spiral of ongoing action and theory, for we shall discover tomorrow what we missed today. Thus there is no guarantee of finding completely just forms of worship; we can simply hope that reformed practices bring about more justice than those they replace.

Fundamentally, all change needs to follow teaching. Only when people see reasons for change are they likely to endorse and participate in it rather than yield to it as yet another form of coercion. This means that ministers have no right to surprise people, even if to correct obvious injustices, for worshipers have a right to understand why they are being asked to change and then to assimilate such reasons fully. This means that worship reform moves slowly, but if worship is for all the people, this reality is inevitable.

Because of its nature, worship cannot escape being a form of social control. But it can avoid promoting injustice in the community and help to move both church and society toward justice. This goal requires diligent effort and constant vigilance. By observation, analysis, judgment and reform, worship can become a force for shaping a community based on justice.


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